Have you ever used the phrase, “I have a really high tolerance,” in everyday conversation?

Probably without even thinking about it, you were talking about the amount of alcohol you can consume in a period of time without feeling the effects.

While this is often used as a bit of flex, it’s actually something to take into consideration as tolerance – or the amount of substances a body needs in order to feel any effects – is actually a means by which addiction can develop.

What is tolerance?

Tolerance occurs when a person has a diminished response to alcohol or drugs as a result of repeated use. In regards to our previous example, tolerance would be needing more than one or two drinks in order to feel any of alcohol’s effects, i.e. delayed response times or an increased sense of relaxation. This occurs when the consumption of alcohol (and drugs) happens often enough that the body’s systems rewire themselves to tolerate the continuous presence of these chemicals.

A person who has developed tolerance to a substance is not necessarily addicted. The difference is their body has adapted to the presence of alcohol or drugs and adjusted to the dose it’s been getting, but usually can still function if the person decides to stop using.

For example, a person who is taking an opioid pain medication may notice after a certain period of time that their regular dose no longer effectively diminishes their pain, or its effects wear off far sooner than before. In such instances, this person is likely to have developed a tolerance to that dose.

Signs tolerance is present

In order to help identify whether or not your body has developed a tolerance to drugs or alcohol, there are a number of signs you can look for to help you prevent tolerance from worsening into dependence or addiction.

Signs of drug and alcohol tolerance include:

  • Consuming large amounts of alcohol/drugs
  • Consuming substances more frequently
  • Needing to consume more of a substance in order to get the desired effect
  • Noticing mood shifts, like a depressed mindset, increased anxiety or stress, anger or irritability
  • Experiencing a decreased appetite

If you notice these symptoms, it’s important to examine your substance use habits — are you using a greater quantity at a higher frequency rate? Do you feel “off” when you haven’t used substances?

A brief self-examination can help you assess your habits and prevent addiction from occurring in the long run.

How does tolerance develop into an addiction?

When a person develops a tolerance to alcohol or drugs, they can be vulnerable to addiction if they increase the amount they take or if they take it more frequently. They can also be at risk if they’re not aware of how quickly a tolerance can switch into addiction – for example, tolerance to stimulants develops rapidly and can quickly turn into addiction if one continuously ups their dose to keep on top of their body’s tolerance.

It’s especially important when dealing with opioid prescription medications to consult with your doctor and prudently follow medical advice if tolerance begins to occur. By increasing a prescription dose, you may experience the relief you did with the drug’s first use, but in time, you will again develop a tolerance. Each increase in the amount of the substance used can, and often does, pave the way to addiction, whether you’re physically aware of it or not.

Tolerance vs. dependence vs. addiction

When discussing the body’s adaption to drugs and alcohol, the words drug ‘tolerance’ and drug ‘dependence’ are often used interchangeably. However, there is a distinct difference between the two: tolerance is one stage of the body’s development of physical dependence on a substance where more of the substance is needed. Dependence is the body’s inability to function without the substance, resulting in withdrawal symptoms should you stop using or decrease the amount/frequency of use.

Some people who are dependent on pain medications, for example, will experience withdrawal symptoms like headaches or nausea if they don’t take that medication for a period of time or abruptly stop taking it.

Once someone develops a tolerance, it can progress into dependence on a substance, which, in turn, can quickly shift into addiction. Do note that tolerance and dependence are not the same things as addiction. Addiction involves mental and behavioral aspects as well as physical dependence, and it’s characterized by compulsive substance use despite negative consequences.

Support for drug and alcohol addiction

Especially with substances that cause the body to develop tolerance rapidly, it can be easy to slip into a habit of consuming more substances than you initially intended. If you notice this occurring in your own life, or are concerned about the development of an addiction, help is available.

Contact Silvermist Recovery today to learn more about our personalized treatment programs.